(Photo: Flickr / Kabsik Park)
Authorities have arrested the owners of a Colorado cantaloupe farm in connection with a 2001 listeria outbreak that killed 33 people.
The listeria epidemic spread across 28 states before the F.D.A. traced it back to Jensen Farms and charged brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen with the misdemeanor of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce.
F.D.A. reports indicated that unsanitary packing house conditions, including dirty water on the floor and antiquated equipment, were most likely to blame for contaminating the fruit.
"The criminal prosecution sends the message that absolute care must be taken to ensure that deadly pathogens do not enter our food supply chain," the F.D.A. said.
Some saw the F.D.A.'s crackdown as part of a larger effort of setting a new standard for "ready-to-consume" foods.
"I think the F.D.A. is sending a strong message that the produce industry is going to have to raise the bar to ensure the safety of the, basically, ready-to-consume foods," Michael Doyle, director of University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety Criminal told Counsel & Heal News.
The outbreak was the deadliest food-borne in a quarter century, affecting 147 people in total.
Jensen Farms filed for bankruptcy shortly after the listeria outbreak.
The misdemeanor was the "was the best, most serious charge we could find," said Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for federal prosecutors.
Federal prosecutors could only have pursued a felony charge if they could have showed that the Jensens had deliberately contaminated the produce.
The Jensens' trial will start on Dec. 1; they could face up to six years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted.